Are you sure your Confederate ancestor even wanted to be a Confederate?

Posted on November 1, 2008 by


On average, very few of us know what our ancestors actually thought regarding events within their own time. Regretfully, because of this some researchers begin to speculate because they want some sort of definitive explanation behind what they do find in their research. “Gray” or indefinite history is simply not acceptable to some, so there is a driving desire to lay out history in clear black and white “truths” – even though, in reality, events and people in history are not so easily defined. As people begin to speculate, there are also tendencies for those same people (or others in the family who gain knowledge of a little of the research) to embellish. Over time, this “artistic license” creates problems in accurately defining what it was, exactly, that our ancestors did or felt.

Personally, I’ve encountered many problems with oral traditions passed through families – my own included. In fact, I will say that just as much as there have been gross embellishments about the so-called “slave stone” in Luray (long story, but a pet-peeve of mine), there have also been some gross embellishments about the service of men from Page County in the Civil War. Some “oral traditions” have exaggerated the truth so much as to lay claim that some men were loyal Confederates, when, in fact, they were deserters or had gone “across the lines to the Yankees” (and were remembered as such by “fellow” Page County Confederates well into the twentieth century). In some cases, I have even found where some men from Page, believed to have been Confederates, actually served as Union soldiers!

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with oral tradition, but one should take care and try to see if documented evidence can help support or “shake-out” the embellishments or “imagined memory” in oral histories. Having said that, however, I also need to add that most certainly, there WERE quite a few “loyal” Confederates from Page County – but, care should be made not to assume that ALL (over 1,800 men from Page) were loyal Confederates. Maybe those who could be numbered among the “loyal” are less than we might imagine.

The family of Thomas and Elizabeth Meadows is one family from Page County, Virginia that might be easily misinterpreted (in terms of wartime sentiment) if research is limited to military records alone. Just looking at the service of the sons in this family might lead someone to believe one thing, and yet a more thorough examination of all evidence available would tell us something entirely different. I have taken the family as a focus of study in this post on my Southern Unionists Chronicles site.

All said, I leave the reader with this… this story from the history of Page County (a source of men in the Stonewall Brigade and the Laurel Brigade, to name a few) offers but one example. What if the same methods were applied to all counties and all Confederate soldiers throughout the South? Sure, the results would vary from man to man, but considering this, how much effort have you made to investigate your Confederate ancestor(s) beyond simple military and pension records? Have your efforts merely scratched the surface? Are you sure your Confederate ancestor(s) really enlisted with enthusiasm and zeal for “the Cause?” Can coerced service (conscription) be ruled-out? Can loyalty to the “Cause” throughout the war be confirmed?